At one time, the dead walked among the living. While they no longer needed their corporeal bodies, some chose to hang on to them. There were those who were particularly stubborn and held on to their corpses until they were little more than dust. Some of the living said it took effort to do so, but others insisted that it couldn’t have been difficult because everyone knew the dead were lazy – although it would have been impolite to say so in front of them. They liked to be catered to and respected.
The old and the spiteful in particular would keep their bodies animated as long as possible. It was not uncommon to see a family leading a confused maggot-filled corpse back to the gravesite where all would cajole and bribe the spirit to leave the body once and for all. Promises were made of frequent visits with flowers and sweets. In time, elaborate rituals were developed in order to coax out the spirit, and those who were particularly skilled in this form of persuasion were sought out and well-paid.
While nobody knew the ultimate fate of the spirit once it had left the body, these persuaders would tell elaborate tales of special lands and the joy that awaited the new arrivals on some distant shore. At first anyone who could tell a convincing story became a persuader, but later there were restrictions. In some lands only men were allowed this position. In others it would fall to a certain caste.
Still the walking dead continued to be a nuisance. While one might be able to ignore even the most obnoxious and persistent of ghosts, a decaying corpse always called attention to itself.
More rituals were developed and people began to pray regularly for the dead always adding expressions such as, “May they rest in peace.”
The concept of a separate place, “an afterlife” often high up, far away, and close to the gods was invented. The living at first did not believe in such a place. It was something they told the dead about – the way a parent might talk to a pesky child – hoping they could convince them to go away and find it for themselves.
The world was becoming a faster paced and growing smaller. It was no longer practical for the dead, even in spirit form, to remain so constant a presence.
Commerce had been invented. The living had begun to build cities and trade in marketplaces. The streets of the cities were becoming overcrowded. One would see the living usually involved in the process of buying or selling or some other type of work related to those occupations. They were busy and hardly even had time to chat. The dead in spirit form looked not so different from the living, although they moved about more slowly, if at all. A dead person in spirit form could stand in the same spot for an indefinite amount of time. After all, where did he have to go? What was the rush?
The living could simply barge through them – which some people believed was rude or bad luck and there was often the possibility that one could be mistaken — that very old woman with the tattered cloak was in fact alive and not too happy when the young man in a rush tried to walk though her.
And people became even more impatient about the corpses.
By this time it was considered vulgar to continue to occupy one’s body after death. The knowledge that a skeletal matriarch ruled a household could kill the prospects for marriage for generations. But there was no reasoning with a corpse.
Some cultures began the practice of ritual cannibalism to keep this from happening.
Others adopted cremation, which became popular although the wood and oil necessary were costly and the religious guilds kept the prices too high for most of the common people who began to break away and perform their own rituals, home made cures for the problem.
Eventually, people demanded more, a final solution.
The religious guilds were broken so that cremations could be performed more cheaply. And when they weren’t, the coffins were nailed shut and buried several meters under the ground and gates placed around the cemeteries making it very difficult for the dead to reanimate their bodies and escape from the grave.
Over time, the dead forgot how to animate or reanimate anything, and even if a body had been left out in the open, it remained still as stone until moved by the living.
These measures took care of the corpses, but did nothing about the ghosts.
Progress had become popular, and the dead were incapable of understanding it. The patriarchs and matriarchs of families would continue to try to hold power for as long as they could. They would demand the finest clothes, even though they couldn’t wear them. The best furniture though they couldn’t sit, the richest foods which were brought to them in elaborate displays and left to spoil or to be eaten by vermin. They would forbid marriages, and demand the living carry out ancient vendettas.
There were sons and daughters who could never marry. Even beyond the grave their parents demanded to be cared for. And women who did marry had it worse. They were never allowed to ascend to their proper place in the household. Their husband’s mother, or grandmother or great-grandmother or even beyond would still hold sway.
Of course the dead would go off somewhere or fade away, but this process could take anywhere from one to twenty generations and there were a few particularly stubborn dead people who were not easily persuaded to “give up the ghost.”
The dead, even in spirit form, could be unseemly. Sometimes a man who died in his prime would continue to husband a woman as she became older and the sight of a decrepit old woman with her dead young spouse was not uncommon. More problematic were the lonely dead who would try to persuade their partners to join them. They could be very persistent, whispering in the ear of their spouse day and night. Children were orphaned because their father had stabbed himself in the chest to be with their dead mother. And while both parents would continue to “occupy” the house, they were unable to provide or nurture their living offspring in any meaningful way.
More elaborate stories were invented to control the spirits. In addition to “heaven,” rumors were spread that if they went beyond the cemetery gate they would disappear. Of course it only took one brave spirit to walk out and come back to tell the others and cause a mass exodus. So the living developed other strategies. They began to ignore the dead except on a few special holidays each year when they would be honored, but even then they would no longer be spoken to directly. This became the law, and the living who chose to continue speaking with their dead friends and family did so at great risk to themselves. They could be accused of heresy, burned as witches, or locked away as insane. And while offerings might be made in one’s home to one’s parents or grandparents, they no longer had to be made to one’s most distant ancestors no matter how much those ancestors complained.
The living found this strategy worked. Nothing frustrated the dead as much as not being paid attention to, and if the living stopped speaking to them and reminding them who they had been, they soon forgot and faded away. Homes were made less hospitable to the dead by the use of certain herbs that they found to be particularly unpleasant. One still might see them drifting around the town but they were for the most part easy to ignore.
Of course for the first few hundred years of this phase, things were awkward. It could be almost comical at times. A woman might be sitting in a chair next to her dead husband, might know perfectly well that he was there, his arm around her shoulder, his mouth almost touching her cheek.
“Oh I miss him so! If only he were here.” And of course she knew that he was, saw him as plainly as the bowl of fruit on the table.
Angry and frustrated the deceased would lash out even managing to move objects or create temperature changes while the living went on pretending that it was only the “wind.”
Later the living came to fervently believe the myths they had created about the magical realms that awaited the dead. It made them feel less guilty about neglecting them, and offered a way to convince the dead to leave. In time, the living became so convinced that the dead were in fact someplace else that they no longer needed to pretend not to see them. They automatically rationalized away the evidence that their senses provided. The dead became quiet and meek also believing the stories. They felt it was their own fault they were still around, that they must have done something, or neglected to do something that caused their continued presence.
Some of the loudest, angriest dead would not accept the blame for their condition. They would continue to “haunt” their relatives. When their outbursts could not be explained away as natural phenomena, special rituals to appease and exorcise them continued to be used, up until modern times.
Others stayed behind at the cemeteries waiting and waiting until the boat came, or the coachman or whomever it was they were told about. Some just drifted away, faded into nothingness, embarrassed, feeling that they must have failed somehow. Some wandered searching for eons or formed their own communities. A few even performed rituals of their own where they would lead the newly dead away from the living and pretend they were going toward the mythical good place. They believed they were helping their brethren by doing this. Even though the newly dead would eventually figure out they were only drifting, by that time they would have adjusted to the situation and been less disappointed.
At some point the living started to really despise the dead. Widows could hardly wait to burn their husbands’ clothes. People avoided cemeteries and houses said to contain spirits. No one even remembered the reason for this contempt, but like most prejudices it began with the suppression of a crime committed against the oppressed.
After hundreds of years of ignoring the dead, the living lost the ability to communicate with them even when they wished to. They could no more hear them than they could hear sounds too high pitched for a dog’s ears. Some children were still able to see and hear them, but this ability, which was held in disdain by adults and never nurtured, would wither away by the age of six or seven.
The divide between the living and the dead was complete and in some ways things were much better than they had been before. Food offerings no longer had to be made daily. Even if the dead were standing with their hands pointing to their mouths demanding or begging to be fed, to have the unbearable and constant hunger assuaged, they were given at most (and only by the devout) a few morsels a couple of times a year. The rest of the harvest could go to feed the living and no one had to starve. Oldest sons grew up knowing that someday they would be in charge of a business or a farm with no one standing by their side constantly haranguing them with advice that might have made sense a hundred years before. Women raised their children in peace. And if by misfortune the child died they mourned it and moved on, had other children so life could continue. And if it was the mother who died in childbirth, then the father would find another wife, a living wife to care for the babies left behind and give him more.
And of course our streets and houses were less crowded, much less crowded. Progress was achieved. Commerce uninterrupted. Old things could be thrown away without fear of offense, until finally the world was inhabited by people who didn’t even know what existed before they were born. Without the dead to tell them otherwise, each generation believed that the world was created just for them.